try to imagine what might have motivated you to give something like ImageNet a try. Perhaps you approached it in the same spirit that you might have, in another age, agreed to visit the fortune teller at a carnival. Now, what exactly is it that you expect? Or what do you tacitly hope for? Do you hope that the tool validates your sense of identity? That it, in other words, confirms to you that you are just who you think you are? If so, what does this reveal about how we experience our own self? Why would we crave independent verification of the reality about which we alone would seem to be in a position to know best? Do you hope that your result is absurdly off the mark? Would this be a relief, dispelling the fear that we could be so readily legible to a machine, that who we are was so uncomplicated a reality that a computer program could easily discern its essence? Or do you hope that it reveals something about you to yourself, something that has escaped your notice, something that will solve for you the mystery of just who exactly you are? If so, why is that? Are we bored with ourselves? Are we sure that something of consequences is missing and altogether baffled by the thought of finding it?
A computational process is indeed much like a sorcerer's idea of a spirit. It cannot be seen or touched. It is not composed of matter at all. However, it is very real. It can perform intellectual work. It can answer questions. It can affect the world by disbursing money at a bank or by controlling a robot arm in a factory. The programs we use to conjure processes are like a sorcerer's spells. They are carefully composed from symbolic expressions in arcane and esoteric programming languages that prescribe the tasks we want our processes to perform.
Technology tends to become mythic. I use this word in the sense in which it was used by the French literary critic, Roland Barthes. He used the word "myth" to refer to a common tendency to think of our technological creations as if they were God-given, as if they were a part of the natural order of things. I have on occasion asked my students if they know when the alphabet was invented. The question astonishes them. It is as if I asked them when clouds and trees were invented. The alphabet, they believe, was not something that was invented. It just is. It is this way with many products of human culture but with none more consistently than technology. Cars, planes, TV, movies, newspapers--they have achieved mythic status because they are perceived as gifts of nature, not as artifacts produced in a specific political and historical context.